Fair and Fowl at the Fringe

 Post by Jacob Hellman

On this final weekend of the Fringe/Live Arts Festival, and after my third year in attendance, I finally grasped the meaning of the phrase “Live Arts.”  Thursday night, as we waited for Norwegian artists Verdensteatret to fix technical glitches in their show “louder,” I read and re-read their program – “[We are] artists from different fields who work together and make live-art and other art projects.”  That little hyphen provided the elucidation: “Live Arts,” more than an umbrella term for theater, is also live-art, something akin to “fine art” as covered by this blog. Just as one “makes a painting,” Verdensteatret say they “make live-art.”

The crowd of nearly 200 waited 15 minutes, then 30, then an hour, but a surprising patience reigned – perhaps word spread of the delicate robots shipped from Norway for this 3-night run. When we were finally seated after 11pm, the house was full.  Before us, a haphazard array of conical megaphones, the kind you imagine projecting propaganda in Soviet countries.  In the corner, a giant spider, whose spindley metal limbs became a softer, less threatening shadow on the screen behind.  As the lights faded, those limbs began moving, slowly, crawling in place.

Jacob Hellman photo of Fringe Performance-louder
Communist-issue megaphones. 

First, the megaphones alone sounded – dozens of dins, rasps, a collective hum.  Then, pairs of performers emerged, stretching filaments of wire taught between them as they spaced apart; others came forth to strum these wires with a bow.  Through many screeches a few pitches resonated, and from the back a cello hummed a two-note rhythm, unifying the dissonance into something palatable.
Jacob Hellman photo of Fringe performance
Strumming on steel wire. 
Truly striking shadow-puppets now glided across stage, fastened to a wire-and-pulley system cranked by hands off stage-right.  Projections blended with the shadows; scrolling landscapes of soft hills with goblin-like silhouettes of the puppets.  Later, a lone woman emerged to conduct the megaphones – pointing to one cluster then another, each sputtered to life (sounding incoherent distortions of the human voice); our ears tracked the changing source of the noise.
Puppets traverse the stage. 
Puppets traverse the stage.

“Louder” unfolds as a series of “movements.”  The performers work slowly, deliberatively, taking their time to let a conversation of sound emerge.  At the finale, people shout, the spider comes to life again, and a few rogue megaphones begin spinning in place, accelerating into oblivion as they holler.  Thirteen men and women take their bow, and all I can think is – airfare! shipping for all that gear! How lucky we are that the Norwegian government underwrites this kind of cultural exchange!

 The piece is massively collaborative, and requires precise fiddling, so each performance is different.  This from Håkon Lindbäck, a seven-year member.  And about the hour delay?  A card that individually controlled 64 megaphones simply frizzed out.  Prolific Philly sound designer Nick Kourtides came up with a near-replacement in a rush, but Håkon explained in his soft Norwegian accent, “I couldn’t figure out my internal routing – I’d had 64 channels, and this was 60.  It was a bit awkward, you know?”

If you’re intrigued, you can still hop the bus to New York and see “louder” at PS 122 Sept. 25-28th.

Jacob Hellman photo of Fringe Performance - louder
The source of the delay. 

Shift four miles west, the next night, to a minimal but equally effective installation at an empty Rite-Aid.  If you were lucky enough, you may have caught Rainpan 43’s Machines (x7) last year.  Imagine now that Geoff Sobelle’s character leaves that dystopian-futuristic apartment and submits to a workday alongside co-creator Charlotte Ford in Flesh and Blood, Fish and Fowl.   

The show starts, stylishly, without warning: a din on the PA suddenly peaks loudly, lights come to full strength, and our chatter silences.  Like a groundhog, Geoff pokes his head up from a mail cart, peers around, and crawls out.  In shirt and tie, frazzled hair, and glasses, he is a low-level manager, creature of that strange, artificial environment which has taken over so much of our world.
A woman broken by alienation
Both characters convey volumes in their first steps.  Like a child at hopscotch, Geoff takes a few whimsical leaps to his desk, stepping only on the lines between floor tiles. Half idiocy; half a poignant bucking of routine.  And Charlotte, if you did nothing else that night, you’d have expressed enough in your first traversal of stage.  From the far corner of the space, we hear squeaking shoes before we see her: in a flaming red dress, she creeps, almost tip-toes, past Geoff, flashing wide, scared eyes his way – she is wretchedly timid, a woman broken by alienation.
The story is simple; a woman tries to romance an uninterested man.   The narrative-minded (perhaps narrow-minded) might call it a “play,” but Flesh and Blood is closer to, in Verdensteatre’s words, “live-art.”  It is a social critique that the artistic team has sublimated into an aesthetic meditation.  The show lives in each of its small events – Charlotte making lunch, Geoff shuffling papers meaninglessly – with exacting attention to the visual and auditory; a series of compact essays, written through performance art, on our alienation from nature and from each other.
The first 10 minutes pass without dialogue.  Our attention is honed, instead, to hear sounds:  Geoff riffs on his creaky chair, then chases an unseen but audible fly.  (It sticks to hanging fly-paper, which by invisible rigging, twitches and shakes as if the imaginary insect is struggling.)  Charlotte operates the microwave, but instead of a few beeps followed by the expected whir, she absurdly punches the keypad ad infinitum.  Beeping echoes eerily through the giant space.  When words are spoken, they, too, become an abstraction of sounds: Charlotte’s nasal drone as she reads a generic memo, Geoff’s flat utterances, in mindless response.  “Hmm…yeah…I gotta make these copies…ok, right…yeah, can you collate these for me?…hmm.”
A full-size black bear attacks
What begins as a creeping recrudescence of nature now comes in full force.  A full-size black bear attacks Geoff in the corner office.  He and Charlotte, undressed and bloody, huddle on the floor, hollering on absurdly about the memo, over a roaring wind, denying the transformation of the office around them.
Then, a true finale: where “Convenience Foods” remains emblazoned on the back wall from the days of Rite-Aid, panels literally burst off, revealing a brilliantly-lit diorama that might be found in the Museum of Natural History: taxidermied animals, painted landscapes, dangling vines.  The music hit an awe-inspired crescendo, and from the ceiling tiles above descend a flock of fish and fowl.  Behind us, Rachel Moffat (who proved herself operating the contraptions in Machines) pulled strings (literally) to make all this happen.  Finally, she released a bale of leaves onto the protagonists, who arose together like Adam and Eve.  There is wonder in the world! Nature prevails!
Jacob Hellman photo of Fringe - fleshblood
Nature rumbles up from below: a stage-set to make Gregory Crewdson swoon.
I hope this production will be given a second life – though it won’t be the same without the cruddy retail aesthetic.  (I overheard Geoff telling a real critic afterwards that the Rite-Aid, which seemed a perfect match, fell into place late in the piece’s genesis.  “But that’s what I like – the performative challenge,” he said.)  In the meantime, you can catch Geoff Sobelle in Pig Iron’s Chekhov Lizardbrain.  It premiered last year at the Latvian Society on North 7th St., and now goes to New York for a run Oct. 2nd – 19th.

–Jacob Hellman is a writer, artist and a political activist based in Philadelphia. He previously wrote on Oedipus at FDR.